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Did COVID-19 and an earthquake raise your anxiety? You’re not alone

When people are already stressed over the novel coronavirus’ potential, then an earthquake hits, it feels like something has to give. There are ways to cope.

Candy Whisler hugs her scared dog Athena and grandson Paris Whisler after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna hit on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Candy Whisler hugs her scared dog Athena and grandson Paris Whisler after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna hit on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit the Wasatch Front Wednesday morning, a woman and a couple of her friends were tossing bricks from the shattered chimney of her downtown bungalow-style home.

“It feels like a bit much,” said the woman, who declined to offer her name. “Seriously. This is a lot.”

Loreen Sjoblom felt the same way after she was violently shaken awake in Midvale by the earthquake. She and her husband Ron have been leading a pretty quiet existence at home since the novel coronavirus pandemic reached Utah, obeying public health instructions to keep away from others because he’s 70 and she’s 69. Age puts them at higher risk of complications — and though they’ve tried to make light of any danger, they don’t want to take any chances.

Adding an earthquake to the uncertainty of COVID-19 feels a little “ridiculous, just too much,” she said. “I’m thinking, it’s odd the way it’s all piling on.”

She’s more worried than she wants to admit, even to herself, she said. “I’m telling myself I’m not stressing, but I was calling everyone to make sure they were OK. Sometimes I lie to myself about what I feel.”

Experts say northern Utah residents can be forgiven if they’re feeling overwhelmed, even spooked, after an earthquake was layered on top of their fears about a pandemic.

“In cases of multiple stresses, having high levels of distress is normal,” said Dana Garfin, assistant professor at University of California Irvine’s Sue & Bill Groves School of Nursing. One of her specialties is repeated exposure to trauma and she said this certainly counts. “In the acute aftermath of a traumatic event, people experience higher levels of stress.”

Trauma has moved through the communities at different speeds: The whole experience of a novel coronavirus has been a slow-moving, potentially traumatic experience with details unfolding day by day, said Dr. Brooks Keeshin of the Department of Pediatrics at University of Utah Health and Primary Children’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families.

The adversities have piled on incrementally, from the threat of potentially serious illness for some, to supply shortages, job hours cut back or eliminated, people told to work from home, businesses and schools closing, social lives halted, child care worries, reduced incomes and more. The experience of children and senior citizens has been remarkably parallel, but working-age adults are sharing the stress of both age groups, while dealing with other pressures of their own.

There was nothing slow about the trauma of the earthquake. That hit fast and then was followed up with little gut punches for several hours in the form of aftershocks.

Taking a significant ongoing traumatic experience and adding another amplifies anxiety. said Keeshin. “They add on in terms of potential impact. Someone who might not be too bothered by the earthquake normally might be bothered a fair amount more than one would expect” right now.

People in the same household or identical situations may be reacting very differently. That’s normal, too, Garfin said.

Recent turbulence

The first tremors and aftershocks had subsided and the staff was having lunch in a private dining room at Pacifica Senior Living in Millcreek when a significant aftershock — reported at magnitude 4.6 — rattled workers along with the tableware. They immediately got up to check residents who are mostly staying in their rooms as part of social distancing to avoid COVID-19. “Be calm,” Stephanie Klingbiel, executive director, said she warned staff, knowing the residents would take their cue from how their caregivers were acting.

Besides nerves from knowing they are at risk, the senior citizens’ routines have changed, too. Area care centers and senior living programs have canceled outside activities and outings. The senior citizens are not going out even for doctor appointments unless they are unavoidable.

Ditto for kids and whole families. The youngsters find themselves with time off from school — but no ability to play with their friends. Will they go back to class soon? There’s a lot of uncertainty. For older students, will graduations take place on time? Will important events — what about the prom — be canceled?

Garfin said people like their difficulties to be acknowledged. But they also need to know that they’re not helpless.

While they can’t control the pandemic or the earthquake, they can control what they do. Garfin said following the public health recommendations for COVID-19 and advice from officials in natural disasters gives one a sense of command and also opens the door to options for helping others.

Many, like Sjoblom, find strength in checking in with loved ones, commiserating and seeing if they can help each other. It’s a natural and healthy response.

“I think reaching out to people, letting them know they’re not alone, they are part of a community, is great. There are people they can turn to even if maybe not in the way they are used to,” Garfin said.

The seniors at Legacy Village of Sugar House, a senior living community with a continuum of services, have been grateful for a community response to COVID-19 that makes keeping older people safe a priority, though they are more isolated from family and friends, said executive director Dave Egbert.

They’re used to congregating for meals, so eating in their rooms has been a big change, Some find it a bit disconcerting, so the staff has tried to lighten things up by visiting often and being cheerful. Positivity is as contagious as gloom — and more enjoyable. It’s a skill to trot out during crisis, he said.

With activities canceled, everyone has more time to worry, from the senior citizens to the high school seniors and the children whose routines were disrupted.

Those who are elderly have a longer perspective. They’ve already been through more. Egbert said life may have helped them be prepared emotionally for recent unsettling events.

Some tools

Elevated stress hormones wreak havoc on every part of the body, so learning how to calm oneself down becomes really important, according to Jennifer James, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health coach at Ogden Regional Medical Center.

She said people are often not taught to manage their emotions in a constructive way. It’s a good idea to acknowledge how you’re feeling, even if you’re feeling really bad. Author Brene Brown writes that verbalizing a feeling and processing it without trying to change it can allow the feeling to pass naturally and a person to be resilient.

People in serious distress should meet with a counselor. During this pandemic, many therapists are meeting with patients online.

Simple, readily available tools may help, including meditation, writing in a journal, keeping a gratitude journal or turning to a hobby or activity that’s enjoyable.

Meditation is mentioned often by experts as a way to lower stress. James said it changes the structure and function of the brain, helping people be calmer, more circumspect, and less emotional in hard situations. She suggests making it a regular part of a day.

“It’s something I sometimes have to make myself do, like brushing my teeth. I do it to be healthy. It’s not always enjoyable. But I am a better listener, more focused, more relaxed and I do not react to things as strongly as I would in the past,” she said. She teaches cardio rehab patients to meditate.

Garfin likes that meditation can be done whenever and wherever. There are a lot of great free apps to help someone learn.

She said it lowers the sympathetic nervous system response. Stress is chronically activated in the aftermath of trauma unless it’s calmed down. But lowing that internal level of anxiety and the physiological response has mental and physical benefits.

Prayer has effects that are similar to meditation.

Exercise is another tool to reduce stress. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous, but can be matched to the level and capability of the person doing it.

And even with social distancing, people can find ways to plug into their favorite activities and rituals. Many churches, mosques and synagogues, for instance, are still holding services that can be viewed online.

“People are probably going to be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Garfin, as well as manageable levels of panic. They won’t last forever. They should use the available resources they find helpful.

Helping the kids

Though this particular earthquake was significant, it wasn’t massive. Children were likely not unsafe, but it’s natural if their response is disproportionate, Keeshin said. Their bodies were primed to be in a “ready-for-danger” position by the coronavirus outbreak. “Add another on top of it and the response is magnified.”

In homes where the power was out, many kids couldn’t even do some of the things that might normally settle them down, like go online and reach out to friends.

Parents need to talk to their kids about what’s going on, being open and honest and answer questions Keeshin said to use developmentally appropriate language and have the conversations in a setting where everyone involved can really focus.

How you approach possible trauma matters.

Asking open-ended questions is better than suggesting how someone feels. It also opens the door to answer the questions a child really wants to ask. If the earthquake is the issue, you can talk about how to be safe. In a power outage, maybe they’re worried more about no internet to make sure their grandparents are safe than whether there’s no light.

“You can’t assume what’s distressing or most bothersome for kids,” Keeshin said. It takes a conversation.

The advice for children is helpful for adults who are anxious, too.

“Caregivers and others could be feeling those exact same things. It’s OK. It’s a normal, natural response,” Keeshin said. “It’s OK for you to take the time necessary to deal with it or to help problem-solve or mitigate.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a fact sheet to help parents talk to their children about COVID-19, answering questions and guiding a conversation in age-sensitive ways. It’s a model for talking about other stressors, too. Children at different ages have different trauma reactions and the best approach varies.

Keeshin said if a child was already highly anxious or struggling before COVID-19 or the earthquake, it’s really appropriate to call the pediatrician and ask for some additional guidance. Just don’t take them into the office; health officials are asking people to avoid physical visits that might expose more people to COVID-19.

“Stay positive,” said Klingbiel. “You can’t function if you’re with someone who is negative.”